Things to do in Iceland

by Kshaunish Jaini

Iceland is the second largest island country in Europe, covering 100,250 sq. kms and is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. It’s a land with diverse landscapes which range from black sandy beaches, picturesque fjords and icy glaciers to fiery volcanoes. In fact, it is believed that Iceland is located above a geological hotspot, due to which its landmass was formed. It was created due to the turbulent interactions between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates about 25 million years ago, making it one of the youngest islands in the world. It is also considered to be one of the most active volcanic regions in the world. Being a favourite destination for travellers, this article will discuss things to do in Iceland.

Best time to visit Iceland

Since the country is located in the northern extremity of Europe, the things to do in Iceland are Iceland are very dependent on the time you choose to visit Iceland . The country sees a large inflow of tourists from June to August as the summer sets in. During this time, the weather conditions in Iceland are favorable to visit all the regions on the island. You can sometimes experience 24 hours of natural light during this period.

River in Iceland

Iceland has many picturesque landscapes. Photo by Kamil

Winters are not as harsh as the other countries in the same region but due to snowfall some of the roads are closed, especially between from October to April. But there are still a lot of activities in store for the tourists during the winters like horseback riding, skiing, visiting ice caves and of course viewing the famous northern lights. The days are shorter in winters and by December you can experience almost 20 hours of darkness.

If you would like to beat the tourist traffic it's ideal to visit Iceland in May or September. You are likely get good deals during this time, get to visit most of the places and have  a high chance of viewing the northern lights. While packing for Iceland, be prepared for all four sessions as the weather is quite temperamental. You can witness rain, winter, summer and fall, sometimes all in the same day.

Icelandic Culture

Icelanders are a wonderful mixture of traditional and modern people and influences. There is a distinct Scandinavian influence in their language and culture. Icelanders have put in a lot of effort to preserve their heritage while embracing new innovations and technology. The icelandic language is known to be the least changed of the nordic languages. With new technology becoming prevalent, they have made a conscious effort not to adopt foreign words but to come up with new and unique Icelandic words or repurpose old words that have lost their relevance over time.

The Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center in Iceland

The Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center in Iceland. Photo by Sarah

Iceland is home to rich literary masterpieces, the art of storytelling through sagas, visual arts and music. You can experience and witness their culture through a number of museums, art galleries, theaters and music venues situated all over the country. One of the most recent such building is the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, which hosts the famous Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and many other cultural festivals throughout the year.

Food in Iceland

Traditional Icelandic cuisine mainly comprised of seafood and lamb along with dairy products. Due to the influx of tourists the capital city is becoming a foodie’s paradise with more and more restaurants coming up to cater to different cuisines. The best part of these restaurants and the fast food vendors is that the ingredients are always fresh, seasonal and organically grown.

Campers eating breakfast at a camp site in Iceland

Campers eating breakfast at a camp site in Iceland. Photo by Cindy

Some of the local dishes include - harðfiskur (dried fish pieces), skyr (a yogurt-like dairy product), hangikjöt (smoked lamb), svið (singed sheep's head) and slátur, which consists of offal (internal organs and entrails) minced together with blood and served in sheep stomach. Whale meat can also be found in some restaurants mainly catering to the tourists.

Pylsa (hot dog) is a famous fast food amongst the locals and cheaper too. Icelanders love their coffee and coke. They have the highest per capita consumption of Coke in the world.

Best places to visit in Iceland

The country is so rich in natural beauty that you can easily find yourself in a dilemma while making your itinerary. Unfortunately, it gets difficult to visit all the places due to time and budget constraints. Iceland is not the most budget friendly destinations especially during the peak season. To help with these decisions, here is a list of must visit places where you can experience the rich natural beauty and culture of Iceland and we hope that this will help you plan your Iceland getaway.

Trekker watching the aurora over the moonlit landscape surrounding Myvatn in North Eastern Iceland.

Trekker watching the aurora over the moonlit landscape surrounding Myvatn in North Eastern Iceland. Photo by Kris

Aurora Borealis – The Northern Lights in Iceland

One of the most unique experiences in Iceland is viewing the Aurora Borealis - Northern lights . The northern lights season begins as the temperature starts coming down in September and October and is visible until April. There is no ideal location to view the Northern Lights and varies on the weather and cloud coverage. The further north and away from the city you go, more are the chances of seeing this spectacular natural phenomena. Mid-winter is the prime time to view the Aurora as it's the darkest time of the year.

The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Skaftafell Ice Caves, Vatnajökull National Park

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is the largest glacier lake in Iceland and is located in the southeast of Iceland. It is situated near the Vatnajökull National Park. The lagoon has a unique blue-green colour due to the mixing of freshwater and seawater. You can see large chunks of ice floating on the surface of the lagoon. With the melting glaciers, the size of the lagoon is increasing day by day, making it the deepest lagoon in Iceland.

Skaftafell in Iceland.

Skaftafell in Iceland. Photo by Otto

Nearby Jokulsarlon is a black volcanic beach named Breidamerkursandur or more famously know as 'The Diamond Beach'. The beach gets its name from the ice chunks that drift to the beach and sparkle like diamonds when the sun is shining.

It is accessible all round the year, except when there is a snowstorm. The lagoon offers boat tours during the summers from April to October. You don't necessary need to book the boat tour in advance unless you are travelling in a big group. You can purchase your tickets from the entrance. During winters, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is a great place to view the Northern lights. You can also explore the beautiful blue Skaftafell ice caves between November and March in the Vatnajökull glacier. Make sure you are with a guide as the caves can collapse if it gets too warm. These caves change their location and shape every year as they are formed by the melting water from the Vatnajökull glacier which flows underneath the glacier. There are a number of tours available to help you explore these caves and can be accessible only during the winters.

two trekkers standing in front of an ice cave in Iceland

Going ice caving in Skaftafell in Iceland. Photo Credit

Getting here is very convenient as it is lies along the major ring road. You can either decide to self-drive from Reykjavik or take the public bus. It’s about 5-6 hours drive from Reykjavik. The whole route is very scenic and will compel you to make many pit stops, so the time to get there can take much longer. There are a lot of accommodation options available around the glacier lagoon. The closest town is Höfn, 60 kms from the glacier lagoon with all the amenities.

The Gullfoss Waterfall

The Gulfloss waterfall in Iceland

The Gulfloss waterfall in Iceland. Photo by Bri

The Gullfoss waterfall is largest waterfall of Iceland located in south Iceland on the Hvítá river. It is around a 100 kms east of of Reykjavík. The waterfall forms a part of the Golden Circle tour in Iceland and is also known as the Golden falls. The waterfall cascades 32m down in 2 tiers, 11m and 21m respectively. The force of the water gushing down is so much that the visitors are usually drenched by the waterfall’s spray. On a sunny day, watch out for the rainbow over the falls created by the mist of the waterfall. And during winters the falls sparkles with ice. The waterfall is accessible throughout the year and open 24/7 without any entry fee. It normally takes a little less than an hour to see the falls but it entirely depends on you on how much time you would like to spend here.

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík

The Hallgrímskirkja is a church in Reykjavík that took 41 years to build

The Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík that took 41 years to build. Photo by Andres

Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík. It’s famous for its unique architecture and is one of the tallest structures (244 ft.) in Iceland and took 41 years to build. It is also famous for the pipe organ, with 5275 pipes, installed in the church. The massive instrument weighs 25 tons and is 49 feet tall. Visitors can go up the tower of the church to get an unobstructed view of Reykjavík and its surroundings. The church is open all round the year, during winters it closes by 5 pm whereas in summers it is open till 9 pm.

The Blue Lagoon, Grindavík

The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is a man made geothermal spa, filled with geothermal water from the nearby Svartsengi power plant, underground water and fresh water, rich in minerals and silica. The lagoon is believed to have healing powers especially for skin problems. You should definitely make a trip to the Blue lagoon to relax in the naturally warm milky blue water which is surrounded by molten lava field. The water temperatures on an average is around 40°C in the swimming area and can be enjoyed even during the winters, when you can sometimes see the Northern Lights while bathing in the pool .

Tourists relax in the naturally warm milky blue water of the Blue Lagoon

Tourists relax in the naturally warm milky blue water of the Blue Lagoon. Photo by Dan

The spa is located in Grindavik, which is around 39 kms from Reykjavík and 13 kms from the Keflavík International Airport. Make sure you have prebooked you slot at the blue lagoon before your arrival. There is no time limit on how long you can stay in the lagoon. Usually people spend around 2-3 hours here. You can also plan to stay overnight in the Blue Lagoon clinic or hotels in the nearest town of Grindavik.

The Maelifell Volcano, Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park

The Maelifell volcano is located in southern Iceland on the edge of Myrdalsjökull glacier and is surrounded by black soil. What makes this volcano stand out is its perfectly shaped cone and it’s green colour. It was formed from the eruptions that took place under the glacier it is on. During winters this dormant volcano is covered with snow. Once the summers set in and the snow melts you can see the real colour of the volcano. The colour comes from the moss that grows on it called grimmia. Grimmia can grow on cooled lava and can change colours from silvery grey to bright green. The best time to visit the Maelifell Volcano is during the summer.

The Maelifell volcano in Iceland

An aerial shot of the now extinct volcano, Maelifell, next to the Myrdalsjökull Glacier in Iceland. Photo by Stephen

Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar, at the edge of the Laugahraun lava field, is a place in the Icelandic Highlands that is made up of rhyolite mountains. These mountains change colour with the movement of the sunlight. You can see shades of red, pink, green and golden yellow. Besides these colourful mountains, Landmannalaugar is also known for its natural geothermal rivers, which are popularly known as ‘The people’s pool’. The best time to visit Landmannalaugar is during summers from June to September. It also makes a great place to view the northern lights from August to September as it gets really dark during the night. A swim in the hot water springs of Landmannalaugar in the night and a sky full of bright magical lights is as good as it gets.

The mountains in Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Landmannalaugar is also known for its natural geothermal rivers. Photo by Marie

There are a number of hiking trails in the area and it also marks the northern end of the famous 3-4 days Laugavegur hiking trail. You can enjoy activities like horse riding and fishing and during summers, hikers are seen camping here too. There is no other accommodation available here other than a few huts with sleeping bags, operated by The Icelandic Touring Association. A lot of tourist prefer day trips to this place from Reykjavík or Skaftafell. During winters, the area becomes inaccessible for tourist but makes a great place to enjoy cross-country skiing.

Strokkur Geyser, Iceland

The Strokkur Geyser is situated in the southwest of Iceland, besides the Hvítá River. It is a fountain geyser which erupts once every 6-10 mins with the water spouting up to 100 feet in the air. It is the most energetic geyser in Iceland and forms a part of the famous Golden Circle tour. The water is extremely hot hence the visitors are not allowed to go very near the Stokkur geyser. Situated about 100 Kms from Reykjavik, It can be visited throughout the year and is one of a very few natural geysers to erupt frequently and reliably.

An eruption of the Strokkur geyser in Iceland.

An eruption of the Strokkur geyser in Iceland. Photo by Audrey

Whale Watching in Iceland

Another lifetime experience that Iceland has to offer is whale watching. With an over 95% chance of spotting a whale in the waters around Iceland, it has become a big tourist attraction for the country. The whales migrate here to feed during the summer, which increase the chances of seeing them. Iceland’s sub-Arctic waters are home to over 20 species of whales. The most common species seen here is the Minke Whale. Some of the other species that are commonly spotted are Humpback Whales, Blue whales, Fin Whales and Sei Whales as are a number of dolphins including white beaks and harbor porpoises.

The port of departure plays a significant role in the kind of species of whale you spot during your tour. The one considered best is Husavik. Located in the North of Iceland, it is known as the whale watching capital of Europe. You can also visit the museum dedicated to these amazing creators. The other ports include Reykjavik, Breiddalsvik, Olafsvik and the Westman Islands.

Iceland Tours

There are a lot of tour options available in Iceland ranging from day tours covering specific destination to multiple days covering a large part of the region. You can select your tour based on your interest, a guided tour or self driven tour to explore the country. The tours vary based on what time of the year you visit i.e. Summers or Winters. To give you a fair idea below are some of the most popular tours available:

Thingvellir in Iceland

Part of the golden circle in Iceland, Thingvellir is one of the most visited places here. Photo by Andres

The Golden Circle

Availability - All around the year
Duration - Half day/ Full day
Price range - $85 - $100 USD

The Golden Circle tour is the most popular tour availed by the tourists. It covers around 300 Kms loop starting from Reykjavík towards south of Iceland. It mainly covers three major attractions of Iceland, Thingvellir National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysers in Haukadalur, mainly Geysir and Strokkur. As this tour can be covered in half a day, you can opt to include some other activities with this tour like whale watching, snowmobile tour or horse riding. In the full day tours, the operators include some nearby sightseeing places like Faxi waterfall, Kerið volcanic crater, the Nesjavellir and Hellisheiðarvirkjun geothermal power plants.

Þórsmörk Valley or Landmannalaugar

Availability - July to September
Duration - Day tours, 4-6  days camping tour
Price range - $120 - $2000 USD

Landmannalaugar in Iceland.

Landmannalaugar is known for it's trekking trails in Iceland. Photo by Marie

Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) and Landmannalaugar are both situated in the highlands of Iceland and offer very distinct experiences. You can decide to cover both the areas together or choose between the two based on the number of days you have in hand. You can also choose to cover these areas in a day tour via jeep and can include a small hike. The day tours generally include a visit to the Hekla Volcano and the hot springs situated in this area.

The hike with camping tour takes about 4-6 days. One of the famous trails is the Laugavegur trail which starts from Landmannalaugar and end at either Thorsmork or Fimmvorduhals, depending on the duration you choose. You would be trekking through the colorful mountains, black sands and glaciers. If you go further towards Fimmvorduhals you can also see the most recent craters formed by volcanic eruption in 2010, called Modi and Magni.

There are a quite a few combinations in terms of places and activities included in different tour packages , which can push the price range for these tour quite high.

The Game of Thrones Tour in Iceland

Availability - All year round
Duration - Day tours
Price range - $90 - $120 USD

Game of thrones tours in Iceland.

Lots of scenes from the Game of Thrones series are shot in Iceland. The Kirkjufellsfoss was a part of Season 7's latest episode. Photo by Kris

This is one of the new attractions after the famous HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’ was shot in multiple locations in Iceland, showcased as ‘the north of the wall’ in the series. The tour starts from Reykjavik and heads south towards Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can explore the Almannagja gorge. The tour continues to view the Þórufoss waterfall and then to a horse farm near Reykjavik, where you can meet the horses used for shooting some of the scenes in the series. The last leg of the tour takes you to Thjorsardalur Valley where you will then explore the village and the "Settlement Era Viking Lodge" before you return to Reykjavik.

Self-driven tours are also quite famous in Iceland. Lot of tour operators can help you rent a car and prepare your itinerary. It can work out to be more expensive than a pre-planned tour but gives you the freedom to explore places of your interest and at your own pace.

Adventure activities in Iceland

Iceland is a paradise for the adventure enthusiasts. The terrain makes it even more fun and adventurous. While some of the activities requires you meet certain criteria like age, fitness levels, prior experience before you can participate in them, there are some which are suitable for everyone. Make sure you indulge in some of the below listed activities to make the most of your trip to Iceland.

Icelandic horses in Snaefellsnes

Icelandic horses in Snaefellsnes. Photo by Kris

Horse Riding in Iceland

Iceland is famous for their unique breed of smallish horses. These horses are strong and known for being stable while crossing rough terrains. Horse riding can be a fun way to explore some of the places where the vehicles cannot reach. There are a number of farms and agencies all across the country that offer horse riding tours from an hour to multi day tours.

Cycling in Iceland

You can enjoy biking tours within the cities as well as in the countryside of Iceland. Reykjavik has a 30 Kms cycling track till Mosfellsbaer for the tourists to explore the city. You can also go for a more adventurous mountain biking tours in the highlands of Iceland during summers and winters. Its advised to take a guided tour when exploring the highlands on a bike. The terrain could be unpredictable and sensitive and it’s always better to have someone with you who is aware of the area.

Hiking in Iceland

On a glacier hike in Iceland

On a glacier hike in Iceland. Photo by Christian

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Iceland with so many favorable locations. There are a number of trails throughout the country like the most famous Laugavegur, Heidmork Nature Reserve, Skaftafell, Myvatn in north, Hornstrandir in the extreme northwest, The Kjolur and Sprengisandur routes in the southwest and the most recent, the area near the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. There are a number of guided hikes offered by the tour operators in summers as well as winters.

Caving in Iceland

As iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, there are a lot of rock formations from the molten lava on the surface as well as underneath the surface, giving rise to a number of caves. There are natural ice caves too in the glaciers that are formed during the winters. These caves can be explored with a guide depending on the season. The most famous caves are Gjábakkahellir Cave near Þingvellir National Park in the summer months, and the Leiðarendi Cave in the Bláfjöll area in winters. Another major attraction during summers is the Thrihnukagigur crater which is a dormant volcano. Visitors can descend right to the bottom of the magma chamber after an hour long hike to the volcano.

Iceland River Rafting

Iceland is home to a number of rivers which are fed by the melting glaciers. These rivers are great for river rafting as they form favourable rapids while passing through the volcanic gorges. Some of the famous rivers for rafting are Hvita River near Reykjavik, Jokulsa River East and West near Skagafjordur and Holmsa River in the South for the experienced river rafters.

Swimming and Spas in Iceland

blue lagoon geothermal spa in iceland

Iceland is well known for its many geothermal and man-made spas. Photo by Pedro

With the abundance of hot springs in Iceland, swimming and spas in the naturally warm waters is a popular activity amongst the locals as well as the tourists. There are many outdoor and indoor pools and hot tubs spread across the country. While some take a nominal entry fee, there are few which are free of charge and are open 24/7. Some of the famous geothermal spas and pools are the Blue lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths, the Secret Lagoon, the Landmannalaugar, the Laugarskarð swimming pool, the Hofsós swimming pool and The Nauthólsvík geothermal beach. You can book these in advance or on the spot, depending on the popularity of the place.

Ice climbing, Iceland

Ice climbing is another activity that you can enjoy all around the year in the glaciers of Iceland. You can enjoy this activity through guided tours in Sólheimajökull and Svínafellsjökull glaciers in the south of Iceland, Snæfellsjökull glacier in the west and the Vatnajökull glacier in the east. The equipment is provided by the tour operators.

Snowmobiling in Iceland

Snowmobiling in Iceland

Snowmobiling in Iceland. Photo by Peter

Another activity for families and adventure lovers is Snowmobiling. The ease to operate snowmobile makes its even more fun to ride. The tours generally last an hour in Iceland’s glaciers. You need a valid driver’s license to drive the snowmobile. This is one of the more popular  adventures here and an exciting way to explore the glaciers of Iceland, while enjoying the breathtaking view.  

Dog sledding in Iceland

Dog sleds pulled by the well-trained and adorable Siberian husky dogs is an activity you should not miss. The sled is pulled by 6-8 dogs controlled by a Musher. It is a great activity for families and adventure lovers, a unique way to explore the icy landscapes of Iceland. Dog sledding is available on the Langjökull glacier near Reykjavík and by Lake Mývatn in northeast Iceland.

Iceland has some much to see, so much to do with such diverse landscape which makes it one of the most attractive holiday destinations. Thought it is an expensive destination, there are a lot of budget friendly ways to enjoy this land of “Fire and Ice”. It is recommended to make all bookings in advance, especially if you are travelling to Iceland during the peak season to enjoy a smooth and hassle free holiday. Happy travelling!

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